ERIC Identifier: ED391109
Publication Date: 1995-01-30
Author: Saterfiel, Thomas H. - McLarty, Joyce R.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.
Assessing Employability Skills. ERIC Digest.
The term "employability skills" refers to those skills required to acquire
and retain a job. In the past, employability skills were considered to be
primarily of a vocational or job-specific nature; they were not thought to
include the academic skills most commonly taught in the schools. Current
thinking, however, has broadened the definition of employability skills to
include not only many foundational academic skills, but also a variety of
attitudes and habits.
In fact, in recent usage, the term "employability skills" is often used to
describe the preparation or foundational skills upon which a person must build
job-specific skills (i.e., those that are unique to specific jobs). Among these
foundational skills are those which relate to communication, personal and
interpersonal relationships, problem solving, and management of organizational
processes (Lankard, 1990). Employability skills in this sense are valued because
they apply to many jobs and so can support common preparation to meet the needs
of many different occupations.
The concept of employability skills originated with educators, primarily
those working on programs specifically designed to facilitate employment (e.g.,
vocational rehabilitation, Job Training Partnership Act). Employers, although
the primary determiners of the skills that will actually enable an individual to
acquire and retain a job, have traditionally focused on job-specific skills
(e.g., those needed to spot weld or prepare a sales report). Assessments for
employment, where used, most frequently have consisted of general ability and
personality tests supplemented by job-specific assessments (e.g., work samples).
In recent years, that picture has changed dramatically with ever growing
numbers of employers assessing foundational skills, primarily in reading and
mathematics, prior to hiring (Greenburg, Canzoneri, and Straker, 1994). This is
probably due to the joint effects of an increasing demand for these skills on
the job and employer dissatisfaction with the levels of those skills
demonstrated by applicants. Even today, however, educators show greater interest
in employability skills assessment than do employers. This is possibly due to
employer concerns about the legal implications of any assessment that might have
an adverse impact (a detrimental effect on hiring rates) on gender or ethnic
minority groups (Uniform Guidelines, 1978).
Much of the current impetus to teach and assess employability skills results
from concerns about this country's ability to compete in the world economy.
Seminal work by Carnevale (Carnevale, Garner, and Meltzer, 1990) was followed by
efforts by both public and private agencies to address the strongly felt need to
improve the work-related skills of those entering the workforce. The work begun
by the Department of Labor and its Secretary's Commission on Attaining Necessary
Skills (SCANS) is continuing, with plans to validate the skills they identified
(U.S. Department of Labor, SCANS, 1992). Development of assessments for these
skills will follow this effort.
American College Testing's Center for Education and Work, through its Work
Keys System, has developed large-scale assessments for seven employability skill
areas: Reading for Information, Applied Mathematics, Listening, Writing,
Locating Information, Applied Technology, and Teamwork. Assessments for
additional skill areas are currently in development (American College Testing,
1994). The state of Ohio combined its job-specific Ohio Competency Assessment
Program (OCAP) tests with the Work Keys assessments for a comprehensive
assessment of foundational and specialized skills. The state of Tennessee is
involving its high school seniors in the Work Keys System to help it meet the
employability skills needs of all its students.
Other notable efforts include the C3 project in Fort Worth, Texas (Fort Worth
Independent School District, 1992) and the portfolio development and evaluation
undertaken by the state of Michigan (Michigan Occupational Information
Coordinating Committee, 1992). These projects are distinguished by extensive use
of business input for development and implementation. Although neither of these
projects currently offers assessments for use by outside agencies, both are
sources of valuable information on the development of employability skills.
Of the many other efforts to provide employability skills assessments, the
largest group focus on the basic literacy level, as did the earliest work on
employability skills. Educational Testing Service, building on the work of the
National Adult Literacy Study funded by the U.S. Department of Education,
publishes tests measuring lower-level reading, mathematics, and document
literacy. Additionally, tests once used only for assessing lower-level adult
skills for academic purposes have now also been pressed into service to meet the
growing demand for employability skills assessment (e.g., TABE,
When selecting an approach for assessing
employability skills, several criteria must be kept in mind. First, the validity
of an employability skills assessment rests on job analysis: a clear and
validated relationship should exist between the assessment and the skills
required for one or more jobs. This relationship should be based on a systematic
analysis of the skills and skill levels required for the job(s) in question. It
is not sufficient to observe, for example, that "reading" is required for the
job; one must know which tasks require reading and the type and level of reading
skill needed. The assessment must clearly mirror the nature of the skill
required, and the score attained on it must accurately reflect the examinee's
level of that skill.
Second, the skill assessed should be teachable. Assessment of "intrinsic
abilities" is valuable both for employers attempting to predict future job
performance and for counselors working with students to identify jobs suited to
their interests, values, and self-concepts. However, the essence of
employability skills is preparation for the job, so the focus of employability
skills assessments should be directed to those aspects of the relevant skills
that can be taught. Since not all employability skills can be neatly packaged in
the traditional academic disciplines, educators must make special efforts to
ensure that they teach all the needed employability skills.
The degree to which preparation for the workforce (i.e., employability skills
development) and preparation for postsecondary education are congruous has been
under considerable discussion. It is too early to determine whether integrated
preparation for both provides as good a preparation for each as separate
programs or, if not, at what point in a student's career separate programs
should begin. Institutions using separate programs for preparation generally
begin that differentiation at grade 10 or 11.
Finally, each assessment must be evaluated in the context of its purpose. If
employers are going to use the scores to make personnel decisions, the
employability skills assessment must meet strict reliability and validity
standards, sufficient to provide a sound legal defense. This requires
painstaking attention to the psychometric quality of the instrument, to the
standardization of the administration, and to the accuracy of the scoring.
However, if the purpose of the assessment is to guide instruction, relevant
psychometric criteria are more relaxed. The advantage of assessments which
employers may use for personnel decisions is that the results are of immediate
use to the examinees in making the transition to the workforce. The advantage of
assessments used only for low-stakes purposes is that they may be constructed
with greater emphasis on providing instructionally relevant experiences to
students. It is also important to recognize that assessment instruments are
needed to support the information needs both of school-age students as they
enter the workforce and of adults making transitions into, or within, the
workforce at later stages in their lives.
American College Testing. (1994). The Work Keys
system. [Brochure]. (Available from ACT Work Keys ClServices, P.O. Box 168, Iowa
City, IA 52243-0168)
Carnevale, A. P., Gainer, L. E., & Meltzer, A. S. (1990). Workplace
basics: The essential skills employers want. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Fort Worth Independent School District. (1992). Making education work: Vital
Link. [Brochure]. (Available from Fort Worth Independent School District, 3210
West Lancaster, Fort Worth, TX 76107)
Greenberg, E. R., Canzoneri, C., & Straker, T. (1994). 1994 AMA survey on
basic skills testing and training. (Available from the American Management
Association, 135 W. 50th Street, New York, NY 10020)
Lankard, B. A. (1990). Employability--the fifth basic skill. ERIC Digest No.
104. Columbus: Center on Education and Training for Employment. The Ohio State
University. (ED 325 659)
Michigan Occupational Information Coordinating Committee. (1992, September).
How do I get from here to there: A guide to work-based learning. (Available from
MOICC, c/o Michigan Department of Labor, Box 30015, Lansing, MI 48909) (ED 361
Uniform guidelines in employee selection procedures. (1978). Federal
Register, 43, 38290-38315.
U.S. Department of Labor, Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary
Skills. (1992). Learning a living: A blueprint for high performance. Washington,
DC: Government Printing Office.